Apple has set a goal to become completely carbon neutral by 2030. The company took one step toward getting there in October 2020, when it announced that it would no longer include chargers or wired earbuds with the new iPhone 12. Arguing that there are already 700 million pairs of Lightning-connected EarPods and two billion power adapters in circulation, Apple says it can save packaging materials and ship 70% more boxes per pallet.

Combined with its move to use only recycled rare earth elements in all magnets in the iPhone 12, Apple says it will keep 2 million metric tons of carbon emissions out of the atmosphere each year.

But, there's a lot more to it than that, and Apple's contributions might be both a drop in the bucket in terms of environmental impact and come with some unintended consequences. Let's go through some of the potential issues with Apple's claim one-by-one:

What if someone who buys an iPhone doesn't already have chargers or EarPods?

With 700 million pairs of EarPods and two billion power adapters out there, some iPhone 12 buyers undoubtedly already had some sitting around. But, there's no way to know how many people don't have these leftover items from previous iPhones. Anyone who's purchasing their first iPhone – or hasn't upgraded since before the iPhone 7 came out in 2016 – will need Lightning headphones, as new iPhones don't have a traditional headphone jack. EarPods (or AirPods) and wall chargers need to be purchased separately, leveling out a chunk of those 2 million metric tons of carbon emissions Apple claims to be eliminating.

Since EarPods and chargers are smaller and less expensive than a new phone, those products are more likely to get lost and need to be replaced. There's ample reason to believe that a significant number of that 700 million and two billion, respectively, are already filling up landfills as e-waste, and another big chunk are the USB-A standard, which won't be compatible with new iPhones. Needing to make separate purchases is especially probable in emerging economies like India, where iPhone 12 buyers will be even less likely to already have a compatible charger.

Gene Munster from VC firm Loup Ventures told The Verge that Apple's decision is likely a way for the company to maintain the iPhone's level of profitability. Some components in the iPhone 12 – particularly those that enable 5G speeds – are more costly than those in previous products. Eliminating the headphones and charger in the packaging, and increasing sales from people who are willing to buy these products anyway, could even out the cost for Apple and help it maintain its hefty operating margins.

Additionally, Apple can still make its claims of reducing carbon emissions, even if consumers increase the number of accessories they purchase from a third-party supplier. They aren't buying a USB-C compatible wall charger from Apple, so it doesn't consider those emissions part of its contribution. But, if Apple was still including a wall charger in its packaging, those emissions would go away.

Photo by Solen Feyissa on Unsplash

Pallet space claims

Experts say that emissions due to shipping won't really reduce if more phones can fit onto a single pallet, as Apple claims. Sara Behdad, an associate professor at the University of Florida's Engineering School of Sustainable Infrastructure & Environment, says that shipping phones on a pallet is based on demand, not on the number of total phones that can fit. If Apple thinks its store in New Haven, Connecticut, is going to sell 250 iPhones, it'll ship 250 iPhones there, even if more could fit on a pallet. (tweet this)

The packaging of each phone may be smaller, but this won't do much to defray the carbon costs of shipping, Behdad argues.

Apple creates more emissions and e-waste by not having a universal adapter.

The iPhone 12 comes with a USB-C to Lightning cable, which isn't compatible with the iPhone 11  or the iPad Pro. While USB-C connectors have become the standard for charging products ranging from Samsung phones to Google Chromebooks, Apple still has proprietary equipment, and often different charging structures across its own products.

It's claiming to eliminate emissions by not adding superfluous items to its packaging, but anyone who owns multiple Apple products undoubtedly has to order materials separately, either from Apple (which helps it generate more profit) or a third-party seller (which supports its "lower emission" claims).

Unfortunately, exact numbers are nearly impossible to come by. One would need to determine an estimate of emissions released per 1,000 iPhones sold, plus emissions per 1,000 chargers or EarPods sold, and then calculate if the emissions cost of the newly sold items is significantly lower than keeping those accessories in the original packaging as usual. And that's not even considering the environmental cost of additional e-waste and packaging waste.

So, what could Apple do?

Experts say Apple is going to need to take a few key actions in order to genuinely eliminate carbon emissions by 2030 and diminish its environmental footprint.

Photo by Barrett Ward on Unsplash
  • Recycling and refurbishing – Apple is taking a step in the right direction with its iPhone disassembly robot, "Dave," which recovers minerals used in manufacturing and steel for use in other devices. There's no such solution yet for AirPods: its lithium-ion batteries can die in as little as 18 months. They're so small that little material can be harvested from them, and it's likely that a sizable number of broken (or lost) AirPods have ended up in sewers and landfills.
  • Switch the iPhone to USB-C – If future products ditch the Lightning port and adopt the USB-C that's become an accepted standard across the industry, Apple can be much more confident that consumers already have the accessories they need, which really will lessen environmental impact. For what it's worth, the tech giant has rejected calls by the European Union to establish a common charger. It reasons that such a move would make all its Lightning cables and devices obsolete, which would significantly increase e-waste. Of course, Apple made all its previous accessories obsolete itself when it switched over to Lightning in 2012.

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